Meera Dattani finds plenty to recommend in the Florida Keys
“Of course, the island has changed in 30 years. I don’t think any place could stand still,” says Carol Shaughnessy, Key West publicist and writer.
“But under the surface, Key West is the same island I fell in love with 30 years ago.”
You could say this for the rest of the Florida Keys. Frequently described as ‘laid back’ and ‘timeless’, this coral cay archipelago feels a world away from Orlando and Miami.
Forty-two bridges along the engineering feat that is the Overseas Highway connect the 125-mile-long island chain, made up of five regions: Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, Big Pine and the Lower Keys, and Key West.
Sell: Balmy and barmy
Heidi Blades, Premier Holidays’ general manager for North America, says: “Key West is great, with its offbeat restaurants, whimsical shops and lovely streets. Families love Duck Key for activities such as swimming with dolphins, and Islamorada is the ultimate place to wind down.”
The Florida Keys attracts about three million visitors annually. Jade Andrews, product administration executive for Funway Holidays, says: “Florida Keys is 46% up in terms of room nights generated in 2015, and a popular twin-centre holiday with Orlando.”
The archipelago has wide appeal, with plenty for families, couples, groups, nature lovers and water-sports fans. With North America’s only living coral reef, the coastline is designated the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, with intentionally sunk vessels creating impressive artificial reefs.
Air Adventures offers helicopter tours including sunset trips, which are a wonderful add-on for clients.
Kayaking, fishing and diving are part-and-parcel of island life, while museums, history and festivals keep it culturally active.
Agents can learn more at the Key Lime Academy at fla-keys.com/keylimeacademy.
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The big ticket is Key West – the birthplace of quirky. After a disagreement with US border control in 1982, it declared itself as the independent ‘Conch Republic’ and the name has stuck for this tongue-in-cheek micro-nation ever since.
The most populated island, it’s the southernmost of the Keys, 150 miles from Miami but only 90 miles from Cuban capital Havana.
Key West’s magic lies in its chameleon-like ability to appeal to all. Art deco and Victorian architecture, leafy streets and vintage signs make it a joy for walking, from the Historic Seaport to the quieter stretches of Duval Street.
Suggest the new Made in Key West Food Tours or the Old Town Trolley Tour, with its excellent guides charting Key West’s history of Native Americans, pirates, wreckers and the Civil War.
Stops include Hemingway House where Ernest Hemingway lived, and Key West still remains a writers’ and artists’ town. Other sights include the Harry S Truman Little White House, Key West First Legal Rum Distillery and Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park, which is best explored by bike.
By night, Mallory Square’s daily sunset celebration is a must, or suggest Danger Charters’ Wind and Wine sunset sail.
The food scene is thriving, from waterfront seafood restaurants to fine-dining, while partygoers love the ‘Duval Crawl’ along Duval Street. Key West is also festival mad, from Hemingway Days and the Key Lime Festival to flamboyant street parade Fantasy Fest.
Eastwards lies Big Pine and the Lower Keys, which are big on eco-tourism. Home to the National Key Deer Refuge, it’s a haven for indigenous miniature Key deer, while Big Pine Kayak Adventures offers trips through protected mangroves.
In Bahia Honda State Park, Sarah Sullivan’s Serenity Eco Therapy experiences include stand-up paddleboarding, paddleboard yoga and meditation on kayaks. There’s also excellent diving on Looe Key Reef, which hosts July’s Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival.
Seven Mile Bridge (6.79 miles to be exact) is Marathon’s main sight, running parallel to Old Seven Mile Bridge, a throwback to the railroad era.
Nearby attractions include tours of the Turtle Hospital, a refuge for sick and injured sea turtles; the Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key, resting place for one of TV’s first ‘Flippers’; and Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters.
For something different, suggest archaeological site Crane Point. A Native American village once stood here and nature trails pass Marathon Wild Bird Center.
Sports-fishing is a big draw on chilled-out Islamorada, while divers and snorkellers head to San Pedro Underwater Archaeological Preserve and hikers and canoers to Long Key State Park.
Indian Key Historic State Park is an interesting spot, with the remains of the wrecking (shipwreck salvage) community from the 1830s.
A more modern spot is the Morada Way Arts & Cultural District, with galleries, restaurants and the Upper Keys’ first microbrewery. A monthly ArtWalk offers an evening of alfresco art, music and food.
There’s fantastic diving and snorkelling in Key Largo, particularly in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. The longest island and bordering Everglades National Park, Key Largo is famous for the eponymous film starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
The island hosts the Humphrey Bogart Film Festival, and at the Holiday Inn Key Largo Resort & Marina, visitors can sail the African Queen, the boat he skippered in the film.
Stay: Low-key luxury
The Keys do low-key and luxury in equal measure. At Sunset Key Guest Cottages, one to four-bedroom cottages, each with private patio and garden or ocean views, are scattered across this peaceful island across the water from Key West.
There’s a pool, spa and private beach, while upscale bar and restaurant Latitude is renowned for its Caribbean or ‘Floribbean’ cuisine. A 24-hour boat service ferries residents and dinner guests to and from town.
For olde-worlde luxury, Waldorf Astoria’s Casa Marina is hard to top with its private beach, pools, spa and golf course. Newcomers include The Gates Hotel Key West, where minimalist rooms feature local photography and exposed beams, and a food truck and rum bar are among the drinking/dining options.
The luxury 96-room Marker Waterfront Resort, the first newly built hotel in Key West’s old town for 20 years, combines conch architecture with contemporary art in a hectare of landscaped grounds.
Under the Islamorada Resort Company umbrella is Islamorada’s newest resort, Amara Cay, a fusion of trendy Miami South Beach and laid-back Keys with beautifully designed and spacious rooms and suites.
Its Italian restaurant Oltremare – one of few upscale Italian spots in the Keys – offers a menu big on fresh seafood and homemade pasta. Other facilities include water sports, outdoor pool, private beach with hammocks and convivial Sparrows Rum Bar.
Other newcomers include Islander Resort, the latest in the Guy Harvey Outpost portfolio. A marine wildlife artist, conservationist and diver, Harvey’s properties are run by staff passionate about the water.
There are 114 rooms in 1950s-style villas and 25 cottages in 10 hectares of landscaped grounds. Facilities include Guy’s Beachside Bar & Grill, water sports and on-site massages.
Big changes are afoot in Key Largo with Marriott’s waterfront Playa Largo Resort & Spa, scheduled to open in December, complete with marina and spa.
The island is also home to the world’s first and the US’s only underwater hotel, Jules’ Undersea Lodge. Guests must be certified divers as rooms can be accessed only by diving – luggage and meals are brought down in waterproof cases – but it still has free Wi-Fi.
For those who don’t want to stay overnight, three-hour experiences are available, including a pizza lunch and diving the lagoon.
5 of the best places to eat
Food and the Keys make a dream pair.
1. For brunch/lunch in Key West, suggest open-air Blue Heaven, with live music, roaming chickens and sublime key lime pie.
2. For Cuban food, takeaway stands such as Cuban Coffee Queen serve delicious coffee and sandwiches.
3. On Big Pine Key, No Name Pub, which is adorned with dollar bills and serves great pizzas, describes itself as ‘a nice place if you can find it’.
4. For sunset, seafood and cocktails, suggest Islamorada’s beachfront Marker 88.
5. On Key Largo, The Fish House serves everything from hogfish to conch.
Jetset Holidays offers a week in the Florida Keys from £1,599, including British Airways flights and car hire. Based on four sharing, the price covers four nights at Amara Cay Resort and three nights in a two-bedroom cottage at Sunset Key Guest Cottages. jetsetholidays.co.uk
USAirtours has seven nights at Amara Cay Resort from £1,449 between January 5 and March 13, 2016, including Virgin Atlantic flights from London or Manchester. The operator also offers seven nights in a two-bedroom cottage at Sunset Key Guest Cottages from £1,735, based on two adults/two children sharing. usairtours.co.uk
Funway Holidays offers seven nights at Hawks Cay from £1,099, for departures on November 11. The price includes car hire and Delta flights from London to Key West. funway4agents.co.uk